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US woman in NGO dispute stopped from leaving Egypt

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Feb. 8, 2012: Egyptian investigative judges Sameh Abu Zeid, right, and Ashraf el-Ashmawi, who are investigating the case of foreign funding of NGOs, enter a press conference at the Ministry of Justice in Cairo, Egypt.

CAIRO -- An American woman banned from leaving Egypt as part of its crackdown on foreign-funded pro-democracy groups was stopped from boarding an international flight Thursday, Cairo airport officials said.

The officials said Mary Elizabeth Whitehead was trying to board a flight to Germany minutes before take off, when airport security stopped her. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with police regulations.

The spat over the non-government groups has caused the deepest crisis in Washington's relations with Cairo in decades, particularly after strong ties under ousted leader Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30-year-long rule.

According to the security officials, Whitehead was listed among seven Americans who are barred from travel by Egypt's attorney general. Some have sought refuge at the American Embassy in Cairo, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who heads the International Republican Institute's office in Egypt.

The U.S. State Department says there are a total of 16 Americans facing trial. Egypt's state news agency says, however, that 19 Americans are facing trial on charges that include the illegal use of foreign funds and operating offices without licenses.

American officials have threatened to cut $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt over the NGO crisis.
Egyptian authorities have responded by blasting what they call U.S. meddling in the country's legal and internal affairs.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr said Thursday the case has nothing to do with the government and is in the judiciary's hands.

"It is being dealt with legally and it is not for the Egyptian government to get involved in the judicial process," he said, adding that U.S. aid to Egypt was not without mutual interest.

Local rights groups and U.S. officials, meanwhile, have blasted the NGO case as politically motivated. Egypt's military rulers, facing criticism for their handling of the country's transition since Mubarak's toppling, have accused protesters and "foreign hands" of seeking to create chaos and instability in the country.

The trial of the Americans and others, which is set to start Feb. 26, involves 43 defendants, including Germans, Palestinians and Jordanians. The Americans work for four U.S.-based groups: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and a group that trains journalists.

President Barack Obama has urged Egypt's military rulers to drop the investigation, and high-level officials, including Republican Sen. John McCain, have flown in to Cairo to seek a solution.

McCain, who chairs the IRI and is the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in Cairo earlier this week that U.S. threats to cut aid may be counterproductive. The aid is linked to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast.

After meeting with military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, McCain said he was given assurances that Egyptian leaders were working "very diligently" to try to resolve the NGO issue.